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Tale of the tapes

Minnette and Langford as Clay and Hannah. (Beth Dubber/Netflix)

Television

Tale of the tapes

Netflix Teen drama is very popular, but it has no soul

If you’re over the age of 30, you may never have heard of 13 Reasons Why, a best-selling young adult novel that Netflix has adapted into a hit series. But chances are just about every teenager you know has. In the course of one week, four parents of adolescents called or emailed to ask me about the drama that premiered on March 31, saying their kids and all their kids’ friends are buzzing about it.

It’s little wonder given that, aside from the book’s popularity, plenty of adult critics nationwide have been hailing it, with Salon calling the show “brilliant,” Vanity Fair describing it as “visually genius,” and TV Guide saying it’s “must-see TV” that makes the “best argument in favor of binge-watching.”

Netflix takes the simple but hooky premise—a 17-year-old girl leaves behind cassette recordings for the people she believes caused her to commit suicide—and expands it into a full-blown whydunit complete with conspiracies, double-crosses, and vigilante justice. Instead of occurring over a single night, the intrigue plays out over many harrowing months, giving the story plenty of time to meander into much darker and more distressing territory.

What hasn’t changed is that we still see events play out through the eyes of Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a sweet, shy junior who harbored a crush on his classmate and co-worker Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). After Hannah kills herself, Clay is stunned to discover she lists him among one of her reasons why. Clay and viewers are kept in suspense until episode 11 of 13, trying to guess what such a good-hearted kid could possibly have done to Hannah. The rest of the targets on Hannah’s tapes have far less reason to wonder, and much of Netflix’s added plot comes from their machinations to keep their parents and school authorities from uncovering everything from bullying and slander to stalking and rape.

It’s hard to believe high school has changed enough in the 10 years since the novel was published to justify the lives of the characters altering so radically from page to screen. Whereas none of the kids in the book confessed same-sex attraction, now, in yet another example of massive overrepresentation, three of the primary 11 do. The show’s language is similarly amped-up for shock value—scarcely a line of dialogue passes without one of the teens dropping an F-bomb, even when talking to their parents. This profanity is mild, however, compared with verbal attacks leveled at Hannah and other girls, which includes describing them in the foulest terms as sexual receptacles.

While the sex-and-drug fests depicted are, I suspect, vastly overblown from reality, the sickening language probably is true to the experience of many high schoolers. And that brings us to one facet of modern life that isn’t present in 13 Reasons Why. No one—not school administrators, not students, and certainly not any of the parents—professes any sincere faith or religious conviction. Strangely, given the subject matter, the nature of the soul or the possibility of eternity never even comes up. And it’s interesting to note that the godlessness of the town gives it, in its own crude, supposedly inclusive way, a more judgmental outlook than anything in Christian theology.

Throughout, the story takes pains to emphasize that Hannah’s reputation as the school slut is wholly manufactured. But what if it wasn’t? What if, as a lonely, hurting girl, she’d actually done some of the things that sully her reputation? Would her suicide be less tragic? Would she be less deserving of Clay’s love and friendship? By consistently underlining Hannah’s virginity and victimhood, 13 Reasons Why seems to suggest she would.

It may not contain the profanity or graphic sex scenes, but the Bible deals with far grittier realities than teen fiction, offering hope, love, and forgiveness to those who aren’t so pure as Hannah Baker. Promiscuous girls like the woman at the well and Rahab are redeemed and raised to high honors. I wouldn’t advise letting my teens watch 13 Reasons Why, but I would use its popularity as an opportunity to remind them of this.